In Conflict Resolution, President Carter Turned Flaws Into Virtues

Let's study President Carter's take on conflict resolution.

By on / Conflict Resolution

conflict resolution

How can you resolve a heated conflict in your workplace? When it comes to conflict resolution, surprisingly useful nuggets of advice come from the realm of international conflict.

Take the Camp David Accords of 1978, as described minute-by-minute by Lawrence Wright in his book, Thirteen Days in September. U.S. President Jimmy Carter made history by negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict between Israel and Egypt that endures to this day. He did so doggedly cajoling and threatening two of the Middle East‘s most bitter enemies, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The talks earned Sadat and Begin the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize and prompted the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

Wright, a staff writer at the New Yorker, first explored the Accords with his play “Camp David,” which premiered in 2016.  Anxious to more fully explore the complexity of the “thirteen days in September” during which the talks unfolded, he expanded the play into a nonfiction book.

Here are three overarching lessons that the Accords offer those engaged in conflict resolution:

1. Insist on Agreement

Conflicts often endure because disputants and would-be peacemakers lack the political will to make difficult choices that could prove unpopular to their constituents and other observers. In this midst of heated talks, it can be all too easy for one or more parties to storm out of the room and declare an impasse.

At Camp David, Carter refused to allow such behavior from Sadat and Begin. In fact, at times he even physically blocked the two men from leaving the negotiation room, according to Wright.

He also wasn’t afraid to resort to threats. At one point, Sadat ordered a helicopter and packed his bags. Carter warned that if he left, American-Egyptian relations would break off, and he insisted that Egypt would be isolated from the rest of the world for generations. Similarly, when Begin threatened to abandon the negotiations, Carter had one of his speechwriters draft a speech in which he, Carter, would ask the Israeli people to vote down their government.

The resulting sense of confinement at Camp David was particularly excruciating for Sadat and Begin because each of them had served lengthy prison terms in the past.

“They were dying to get out of there,” said Wright in an interview with the Austin Chronicle. That sense of urgency provided a strong motivation for agreement.

In business negotiations, pressuring someone to stay at the table can be unwise and unprofessional. But by reminding an obstinate party of the potential of negative consequences of their departure, you may be able to persuade them to try a bit harder.

2. Micromanage When Necessary

Jimmy Carter is often assessed as a weak president who failed to tackle the considerable problems facing the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s in part due to his tendency toward micromanagement. He infamously tackled issues in meetings in alphabetical order and even monitored how many hours his aides were spending on the White House tennis courts.

Somewhat surprisingly, this personality flaw became a virtue during the Camp David Accords. On the one hand, Carter’s attempts at rapport building between Begin and Sadat fell flat, according to Thirteen Days in September. But the American president arrived at the talks armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the conflict, the issues important to both sides, and the tenacity to negotiate the most microscopic details on the table. It was a tendency well suited for identifying potential tradeoffs across issues and pinpointing glimmers of an agreement.

In the business world, and particularly the executive suite, big-picture thinking is typically prized, and attention to detail is disparaged as fussy and unnecessary. In conflict resolution and complex negotiations, however, micromanagement can be an asset in a leader.

3. Prepare to Take the Lead

Carter arrived at Camp David that September expecting to play the role of facilitator, assisting Sadat and Begin in negotiating their own resolution. But as the days passed, he realized that for the peace process to succeed, he would have to play a more directive role. He ultimately put forth a detailed American peace plan, which became a working template that the parties could build upon and, ultimately, the framework of the final agreement.

In the end, Wright believes the Camp David Accords succeeded not because the most ideal partners were at the table, but rather because all three of the lead players had “an abundant amount of political courage.”

Carter, for example, holed up at Camp David for two weeks in the face of soaring inflation and gas prices in the United States and a revolution in Iran. His bold stance contrasts with the more cautious approach of many politicians in our own era toward international conflict resolution. Other recent American presidents, including Barack Obama, have avoided presenting a detailed American plan for peace between Israel and Palestine, for example.

Switching from the role of facilitator to lead negotiator carries considerable risk. But when the parties in conflict refuse to engage with each other, you may need to put forth the outlines of an agreement. Draft proposals can inspire the type of debate that leads to the discovery of underlying interests and deeper understanding.

What are your favorite conflict resolution methods? Share them with us in the comments.

Related Article: Breakthrough International Negotiation


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


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